I was walking in Glen Park, a solidly middle-class San Francisco neighborhood, the other day. And there on a telephone pole was a notice from the police warning me not to use my iPhone openly or walk around with the tell-tale white ear buds showing. You can guess the reason. iPhones and ear buds are mugger magnets. Solid, if unsettling, advice I thought. And when I did a little research, I found that police in other cities -- New York, for one -- hand out similar advice.
Yet when queried about cell phone theft by the New York Times, John Walls, a spokesman for the CTIA, the wireless industry's trade group, says that phones are so cheap (because of carrier subsidies) that theft is not a significant problem. What a bunch of nonsense. Police aren't handing out those warning for nothing. So far this year, there have been 120 robberies involving iPhones in San Francisco, a five-fold increase over 2008, Sgt. Wilfred Williams, a spokesman for the SFPD, told me. And sometimes the victim is beaten, not just robbed. Sounds significant to me. As does the $199 to $299 price tag.
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Sure, you can call AT&T after a theft and they'll turn off the account. But a smart thief or fence (a middleman in the stolen goods food chain) knows that replacing the SIM card makes that iPhone good to go. Similarly, the rightful owner of a stolen Kindle (Amazon's e-book reader) can turn off the account -- but the device remains usable. So there's incentive to steal them.
[Update: iPhone 3.1, released Wednesday, apparently allows users of MobileMe to disable the iPhone over the air. Whether changing the SIM card defeats that tactic isn't yet clear. I'm glad Apple made the change, but why did it take so long and why is it only available to users of a $99-a-year service?]
The CTIA's Walls is just doing his job. He doesn't have the power to do anything but issue press releases. But other people in the industry do have power, so why don't companies like Apple and Amazon.com fight crime by making stolen wireless devices useless to the thief? It's not that technically hard, nor that expensive. It's cultural: Give us your money and then shut up.
Customer be damned
When Amazon fell afoul of George Orwell's publisher, it reached out via Sprint's Whispernet and deleted copies of "Animal Farm" and "1984" from the Kindles of hundreds, maybe thousands of users. The delicious irony of turning Orwell's books into unbooks aside, the incident illustrated Amazon.com's ability to manage the device remotely without the owner's permission or even advance knowledge.
But Amazon.com won't "brick" (make unusable) a Kindle that has been stolen. Why not? The Times reporter who asked that question was told, "We aren't going to speculate on hypotheticals." Excuse me? Yes, the company said it will cooperate with the police, if they appear with a subpoena. Right. The cops have nothing more important to do than see a judge to get a subpoena to recover a $300 e-book reader.
Maybe Amazon.com is afraid that customers will report their Kindles stolen after merely misplacing them. If that's the case, charge the customer for the reactivation. I don't think Amazon.com really wants to sell books to Kindle snatchers, but if you're the owner of a stolen device and the vendor won't help you, who cares why.
Apple didn't return my call. (To be fair, I suspect the PR staff was busy with Wednesday's music event.) Again, other than potential support snafus, there's no reason for Apple not to be more cooperative when a device is stolen. And remember, by making it worthwhile to steal an iPhone, Apple is inadvertently encouraging theft and putting its customers at risk.
(Tip: Because a stolen iPhone probably contains personal data, you should enable password protection. To be even more secure you can set the phone to erase data after a number of failed attempts to enter the password.)
This customer-be-damned attitude makes me furious. And it goes well beyond Amazon.com and Apple and the issue of bricking. Case in point: D-Link, a maker of routers and other devices for home networking. Have you ever tried to find D-Link's phone number for free technical support number for products still under warranty? That's hard because it's not on the support page, the logical place to look. But the number to call for paid support is prominently displayed. I found the free tech support number three clicks away under the Company and Press tab.
Having followed the industry for some time, I'm well aware that customer support cuts into margins. And it's reasonable for companies to encourage consumers to use other options, such as well-done FAQs and troubleshooting wizards. But hiding the phone number is off the chart. (By the way, my general experience with D-Link technical support has been good -- once I figured out how to reach it.)
We're spending good money to buy these products. We're owed respect and decent customer service. It's time to start punishing vendors who treat customers with contempt. Make sure your complaints are loud and make sure other consumers (and tech writers) hear them.
I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.